The first refrigerator was patented in the United States on this date in 1899. The practice of preserving food by keeping it cold had been around for hundreds of years. At first, this meant burying it deep in the ground, or submerging it in cold streams. In 18th-century England, people collected sheets of ice in the winter and put it in specially constructed underground ice houses, where it was salted and wrapped in flannel to preserve it until the summer. That led to the development of the slightly more portable icebox: a wooden box lined with tin and insulated with cork or sawdust. A Scot named William Cullen publicly demonstrated the first artificial cooling system in 1755, but he didn’t put his invention to any practical use.
Modern artificial cooling systems work by compressing gas into a liquid state, and then allowing it to evaporate into a gas again, in a small space. This process removes heat from the surrounding area, and its discovery paved the way for the development of more advanced artificial cooling machines in the early 1800s. At first they were used in a hospital setting, to cool the air for yellow fever patients. But these early refrigeration machines used toxic gases, which created serious problems if the compression system developed a leak.
None of these early attempts — successful though they may have been — were granted a patent in the United States. It was the work of Albert T. Marshall that was finally deemed worthy, and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued the first American refrigerator patent on this date in 1899. In 1918, the Frigidaire Company was founded to manufacture home refrigerators. The market grew in the 1920s and ’30s with the development of Freon, which was a safe alternative to toxic gases; by the end of World War II, no modern kitchen was without one. It wasn’t just a convenience for housewives. Artificial refrigeration revolutionized the way food was produced, and refrigerated rail cars made it possible to transport perishable foods over great distances.